Saturday, 29 May 2010


Is there anything more relaxing than being read to? Maybe audio tapes and radio plays take you back to your childhood - to times when you lost track of the hours, dozing on cushions in a corner of the library, rain beating on the dark window as the voice of your English teacher washed over you, reading 'The Hobbit'. Or perhaps it reminds you of nights when your parents read to you by lamplight, and you begged them for 'just one more page' before bedtime. Our 8 year old is already 'over' bedtime stories - happily lost in her own world, devouring Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, and (of course) J K Rowling. I am really going to miss bedtime stories when the four year old outgrows Slinki Malinki, the Wild Things and Curious George.

Routines like this - bath, bed, story - have kept a familiar and comforting shape on what are very unfamiliar days. For me, I'm trying to focus on the good things out here. Sun, warmth, swimming every day ... Yes I'm in a desert city rather than leafy England, but the shape of our days, the demands of a young family have stayed remarkably the same. Children need clean socks wherever you are. The pilot is back on long haul - China, the US and India in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile when I'm not dicing with Hummers on the school run, I have - finally - time to work. 'The Beauty Chorus' is being edited, and I'm lost in the world of my girls from 7am - 1pm each day, listening to Billie, Ella and the gang. I could be anywhere. That's perhaps the most wonderful thing about writing. As long as there's some stability and the basics - a desk, a chair, pen, paper - you can work anywhere in the world.

We've said before how music can be an instant 'key' into your work. Some writers like silence, maybe you do? For me as soon as I hear the opening bars of 'How High The Moon' it's like a Pavlovian reaction, (though instead of salivating for dog kibble, I am ready to start writing). What are you listening to right now as you work? For me, it's always artists with distinctive voices that work. In music, as in writing, it's that distinction - that 'voice' - that's the elusive goal. A true voice makes you feel like you are being sung to, read to, intimately - one on one.

If you enjoy audio stories, why not head over to Shortbread. Some of you have already submitted great short stories to the site. One of the early pieces I submitted, 'Company', has been chosen as one of the four summer audio stories, and recorded brilliantly by the actor Paul Jerricho. If you follow this link, click on 'Company' then listen to audio, you can hear his great performance. It's a real thrill to hear your work come to life. Hope you enjoy this and the other stories:

TODAY'S PROMPT: Have you tried reading your work aloud yet? If not, I really encourage you to give it a go. There is no better way to flag up flaws in your story - particularly with dialogue. If you don't feel comfortable performing your own work, you could always try downloading a free programme like DSpeech This is a text to speech programme - it's not perfect, but you can 'listen' to your words, and there's no better way than that to get a sense of if your 'voice' sounds natural.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010



Expectations and first impressions sometimes don't marry up. I worked in the Middle East art market for five years, so had a fairly good idea of what to look forward to. But, my Middle East is the places I've explored and loved: the Alhambra, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, a friend's candlelit riad ... moonlight on water, shaded courtyards, dazzling mosaics. It's exquisite calligraphy and it's Richard Burton, Owen Jones, Prisse d'Avennes - it's Paul Bowles, (reread The Sheltering Sky before coming out).

I hadn't expected everything to be so *new* (we are the first family to live in this apartment - previous occupant was a single Captain, which explains why the oven still had the stickers on it :). The city seems to literally be rising up out of the desert - everyday you notice a new building going up.

Adaptation takes a while, and yet, a month in and it's beginning to feel like home. We escaped to the coast for the weekend - swam in the Gulf, rode camels (here's a tip, never stand downwind of a braying camel - the world's worst halitosis). The children are back at school, so after dropping them at 7am I can work. My head is with 'The Beauty Chorus' in 1940s Britain, while I'm swimming laps in 21st century Qatar. We've talked about this bizarre split before - how writers can be two (or three, four), places at once. Maybe as Paul Bowles says in today's clip, the secret is really to notice, and feel where you are - not to take anything for granted. The trick to survival - and perhaps happiness, is to seek out the things that bring you joy, however small they are - and hold on to them. As writers, that's what we are constantly training ourselves to do - to notice, remember, feel more.

This quote from James Beard on today's Writer's Almanac says it all: 'When someone asked him what his philosophy was, he said: "Feel free and take a fresh look. My emphasis is on options. My motto: 'Why not?'"

TODAY'S PROMPT: Take a fresh look. Notice first impressions. Why not take five minutes and jot down the first things that you notice around you? Sights, sounds, smells. Paint a word picture, a stream of consciousness that conjures up your world. Here's what I saw and felt this morning walking to work: languid, air like a warm bath, collecting fallen frangipani and bougainvillea from the pavement, everyone walking loose-limbed and slow, dragonflies hovering over the pool, muezzin intoning, wind carries taste of dust, drains, dark coffee brewing ... Your turn. (If anyone wanted to write about rain, and grass ... I wouldn't say no :)

Care for a mint old chap?

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